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Shrinking private space

In the time of lockdown and home office, the line between public and private space is getting thinner and thinner. Fashion – our way of presenting ourselves to the outside world – is a good example of this tendency.

This reflection on shrinking private space and fashion is not backed by extensive evidence. It is rather an exercise of the mind, an attempt to understand the important distinction between public and private space.

What is public space?

Having worked in NGOs for the past year or so, one talks a lot about shrinking public or civic space as a tendency in every corner of the world. While the matter of this reflection is not specifically shrinking public space, it is nonetheless important to start there and define what public space is and what it means when it is shrinking.

Without going back to Ancient Greece and the beginnings of democracy, public space is a place where one* exercises free speech, debates political matters, and gathers with friends, family and other larger groups of people. It is a place that is not consumption-oriented but open and free for everyone to access. In this respect, public space is necessary to democracy, which is characterised by freedom of speech and of assembly and most of all by the participation of all members of society to the political and social life of their country.

Shrinking public space is observed when the places originally meant for small or large groups of people to gather are either inaccessible for these groups or disappear altogether. This can be the result of austerity measures, the rise of surveillance (Civil Society Europe and CIVICUS) and the increasing use of new technology, as well as less investments in parks and public spaces, among other reasons. Shrinking public spaces are often accompanied by a shift from open physical places to virtual places such as our computers and smartphones.

Consequences are diverse and complex, often part of a vicious circle. They range from increase of nationalism and discrimination (Civil Society Europe and CIVICUS) to a decline of empathy due to our use of new technologies which have become an integral part of our lives, public and private alike (Sherry Turkle).

Lockdown and restrictions

In times of lockdown and restrictions it seems necessary to block access to public space and to encourage social distancing in order to stop the spread of a potentially deadly virus. Amidst the current sanitary crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, most of the world’s population is thus summoned to stay at home. While many are unable to work altogether, others have taken on the challenge – willingly or unwillingly – to do home office, to move physically and mentally their office into their home.

Similarly, those who have not yet entered the market place are asked to study at home. Schools and universities, as well as offices are no longer physical entities that we enter in the morning and leave in the evening, that exist outside one’s own private space. They have become part of our home ; part of our bedroom, living room and dining room is now dedicated for work and study. For many of us, this means that the very place where we live, eat, relax, has now been invaded by meetings, reports, emails, study books and exams.

A shift is thus operated, made possible through the use of new technologies and the internet, that turns our private space into what used to be public.

How is this related to fashion ?

If we understand fashion not as the industry producing clothing goods, but as our way of presenting ourselves physically to the outside world, one can start to see the connection. Fashion, the way we dress and the occasion we dress for, shows how thin the line between public and private space is, especially in the time of lockdown.

Whether we need to wear a suit or a specific uniform to go to work or to school, or whether we are free to choose what we want to wear, we cannot escape that moment in the morning when we have to take off our pyjamas and put on our ‘outside’ clothes.

The point here are not the clothes but the physical transition represented by the action of dressing up. We are leaving our own safe buble to enter the outside and unpredictable world. This transition enables us to mentally prepare ourselves for entering a bigger place, one that we share with many other people, one in which our role is different from the one we assume at home.

Entering that world requires a specific attitude and usually entails many worries and duties to fulfil. Putting our day-clothes on and getting ready gives us the necessary energy, the push to get out there and interact with others, work and learn.

Similarly, when we come back home after a long day of work, dropping our day-clothes for something more comfortable means that our public duties are finished for the day and that we can go back to our private solitude, focusing on ourselves and our family.

This transition is blurred if not completely inexistant when we use the same space for public and private matters, the same clothes whether we are answering emails or reading a book. Indeed, how do you dress when you are working from your living room, without colleagues, teachers or fellow students around you ? Do you put your suit or uniform on or do you stay in pyjamas pretending that your webcam is broken when you have a meeting?

Overloading our private space

This lost transition makes it all the more difficult to separate our private duties from our public ones, thus overloading our private space with worries and thoughts that belong to another space. How do we create such a transition in times of lockdown and home office? How to keep a work-life balance when our everyday life is disrupted by unexpected events?

And more importantly, how do we make sure that instead of ‘going back to normal’ we re-create vibrant, dynamic and safe public spaces outside our home where we can perform the act of socialising and interacting with others while preserving the necessary private space for retracting ourselves?

*the definition of who had access to public space, or rather whom public spaces were meant for, has changed time and again since its beginning in Ancient Greece.


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